Reading Violence

by Annie Heckman

in The Violence of Liberation: Gender and Tibetan Buddhist Revival in Post-Mao China, by Charlene E. Makley

As we read Charlene E. Makley’s The Violence of Liberation: Gender and Tibetan Buddhist Revival in Post-Mao China, our conversation seems to be picking up immediately where it left off, in the question of violence, both physical and interpretive. Makley shows how these twin concerns are inextricably linked.

Last week we ended our discussion of Sam Van Schaik’s Tibet: A History with a loose 2-column chart on the chalkboard: Fact as a heading on the left side, Fiction on the right. Loosely grouped around Fact, we included RATIONALITY, men, lettered, Agency, quan (quantitative), coordinates, and, notably crossed off with a big X, Plot. Grouped around Fiction, we wrote qual. (qualitative), past, women, legends, orally, Emotions, Hate, deception, 1644 (with a circle around it), Ambition, animals, Love as source of knowledge. Hovering somewhere between these two groupings, we had a few notes: This probably didn’t happen, terma, landscape. And at the bottom of the board, somewhat placed left and right but not seeming to correspond exactly to our groupings above, we have two phrases that emerged out of a discussion of hermeneutics, when we asked about what happens when we take our fact/fiction dichotomy as an unstated starting point. READING INTO or AS IS. Its partner at the other side of the board reads VIOLENCE TO TEXT.

With the phrase “doing violence to the text” ringing in my ears at the end of our conversation last week, I checked back on my notes and saw that I had scrawled the following lines during our discussion: fictive/accurate, FACTS – a list of dates, Is it the case that this is the dichotomy that’s … Violence to the text – projecting our own dichotomies onto the text. Be willing to be changed by it. Reflecting on our conversation, I tried to think of a time that I had really been willing to be changed by a text in an academic context. Even when questioning my own agendas and frameworks, I usually drop them right into place anyway, or, even with the best intentions, spot them a week after finishing a piece of writing. With this in mind, and Makley’s nuanced methodology and theoretical frameworks, I’m taking this post as a chance to think through these questions of violence to text, and to see how she explores the term violence in her book.

Makley begins her Introduction with this reference to state violence: “‘We young people sometimes can’t believe the stories; it’s like some sort of nightmare torture.’ That is how my good friend the young monk Akhu Konchok wincingly referred to the story an elderly monk had told me about state violence in Tibetan regions after the Chinese Communist revolution in 1949.” I hesitated to begin a comparison that places violence to a text in a classroom discussion of hermeneutics alongside physical violence in this context. But Makley’s project points out how layers of violence are intertwined, how the physical violence in the region could not have been enacted, sustained, and incorporated without its ideological and social frameworks. So to understand this more deeply I’d like to look through the book to point up different mentions of the violence of liberation, and to start to question how physical violence may correspond to damage through interpretive gestures. To do this I’m focusing on a few broader mentions of the “violence of liberation”, indexed with revealing headings, in the text.

Violence of liberation and socialist transformation (48-53):
In this section, “Fatherlands”, Makley introduces the “violence of liberation” from the perspective of Chinese state violence in the Labrang region, originally under Mao and later with the Dengist promotion of “civility” (48). Two themes in Makley’s text meet here, when “the Communist agendas and nationalist spatial frameworks of the Han work-team members sent to Labrang in the 1950s led them to grossly misapprehend the nature of Tibetan male power and legitimate violence in Labrang… bringing the Communist revolution to the frontier zone and “liberating” … Labrang was not at all a peaceful process.” (49) This ideological tension shows up memorably in a quote from first Part Secretary Huo Deyi’s memoirs: ““we would redistribute land to the peasants in the daytime, and by the nighttime they would return it as gifts [to the original owners]”. Through comparing perspectives and analyzing the ways these discourses were framed – old and new, religion and liberation from feudal superstition, and so forth – Makley helps us to understand how the current situation in Labrang evolved, and how it did so largely through how people talk about and interpret one another.

Violence of liberation, in mandalization (53-61):
Here we see how Makley’s meaning for the phrase “violence of liberation” is doubled: “the “violence of liberation” at the heart of Tibetan tantric Buddhist ritual agency… . lamas, as enlightened beings, asserted control over spaces by violently subjugating the earth and its associated enemy agencies… .” (53) This invented term mandalization, becomes a sort of short-hand for the network of power relations surrounding prominent tulkus, and the evolution and maintenance of those relations. The idea of a taming taking place, of there being a forced subjugation and therefore a network of power related to that taming, becomes prominent in how Makley analyzes the previously existing power relations in Labrang, and the way in which the power networks around monasteries are crucial sites for understanding Chinese state violence.

History as an aspect of the violence of liberation (83):
Makley takes on the construction and negotiation of history through the stories told (and through talking about the telling of stories) in Labrang: “…I rethink “history” as fundamentally a gendered “practice of time” (Mueggler 2001: 7), one that unfolds as situated persons work to remember within a variety of hierarchically arranged discourse genres, under the press of relations of power.” (83) She continues, in a thought that seems especially pertinent to our conversations in class: “If we start from the fundamentally metalinguistic nature of language and meaning production, then we cannot conceptualize “history” as an objective story abstracted from the contexts of the telling. Instead, we have to consider history making as a situated politics of memory. That is, memories are made into stories only through contemporary, context-specific selections or metalinguistic framings that foreground some things and repress others. …”

What does this mean for us as we consider forcing an interpretation onto a text and physical violence (and why does “violence to a text” apply here)? Makley makes the point throughout that Chinese state violence, in relation to existing hierarchies, strongly roots itself in intellectual understandings and speech acts, as with the frequently referenced Speaking Bitterness campaign. It is not only through physical violence, but through forced and reframed frameworks for the ways in which one tells and interprets one’s own histories that we see the violence of liberation taking shape in the region.

Makley makes the point about context-specificity in the telling of histories poignantly through her framing of Drolma’s story – we learn many of the stories in the text through Drolma’s eyes, with Makley increasingly highlighting Drolma’s intentional framing of the narratives. We see how important appearances are to Drolma, who married away from her home and maintained roles in a household with her husband in the city and nearby in the village as a daughter-in-law. Drolma is one of our most consistent resources for understanding gender relations in this setting, and she seems like a loving narrator who is very concerned for keeping her appearances appropriate in the storytelling. After developing a bond with Drolma as both a narrator and character in local histories, we learn toward the end of the book that she is personally suffering in the conditions she describes, as her husband’s problems with jealousy, anger, and alcohol descend into routine and brutal domestic violence. In one of the more cruelly intimate turns in the book, we see how a violence of interpretation, an increasingly narrowed view of appropriate behavior for women, bolstered by gossip and a reduction to dichotomies in women’s roles, finds its natural result in physical violence. It is perhaps with this parallel in state and domestic violence that Makley makes her point most strongly, because we can imagine how, for one person, the frameworks in which he can see his wife shape what appears to be true. Actual violence follows the orientation to dichotomies and a forced interpretation of women’s roles.

What lessons can we take from this about openness to a text, and a willingness to be changed? One way Makley interprets against the grain of the violence witnessed to her is through gestures of her own openness to interpretation, for example in her willingness to change her earrings and adapt her look to appear gendered as a woman, once she realized that her fashion and hair were reading too closely to local masculine nomad style. By putting her own questions of self-identification and interest in fitting into certain social groups at the center of early entry points to her research, Makley both positions herself as a researcher for the reader, and shows that her outside agenda could be changed by her surroundings. Makley’s adoption of a new style of gender-specific earrings parallels her understanding of the significance of interview techniques in the region, where asking locals to testify about their experiences in recorded interviews echoed the methods of Speaking Bitterness campaigns. Her willingness to look at her own methodology in light of the conditions she meets in research, and to reframe it accordingly, sets the stage for a reading of the stories she collects without a forced agenda. Most importantly, she actively cultivates friendship, and honors the stories she collects by framing them in a way that she carefully develops theoretically, as “contemporary, context-specific selections” in which we get to know the tellers of the stories, and learn to appreciate some of the tensions involved in any telling.